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Lahal, an Indigenous guessing game, is a big hit in capital region schools

A Cowichan Tribes elder taught the game, called Lahal, to Indigenous educators in the district last fall

A guessing game called Lahal is sweeping through capital region schools after a Cowichan Tribes elder taught the game to a group of Indigenous educators in the Greater Victoria School District last fall.

Close to 500 students and staff from 15 schools converged on the Spectrum Community School gym on Tuesday for an inaugural tri-district Lahal tournament.

Participants from the Victoria, Sooke and Saanich school districts drummed, and swaggered at each other as they attempted to bluff and distract the opposing team into making incorrect guesses.

Lahal, sometimes spelled Slahal, is a widely played game of chance in Indigenous communities across North America.

Also known as the bone game or hand game, it is enjoying a renaissance on Vancouver Island.

Cowichan Tribes elder Rick Peter, also known by his Pacheedaht name of Sitaluk, said that centuries ago, his ancestors played Lahal to settle arguments rather than engage in violence.

“Whoever won, won the argument and it was never brought up again.”

The game evolved towards a form of wealth-sharing, as players wagered food, houses, land, and even people through Lahal, he said.

“If the wives played, the wives bet their husbands. The husbands played, the husbands bet their wives,” Peter said.

That doesn’t happen anymore today, he said. “For some reason, the government got involved and won’t allow us to do that,” he joked.

On a more serious turn, Peter said the game was suppressed for many years. “They tried to keep it down. Anything in our culture — take the Indian out of the Indian,” said Peter, an apparent reference to the words of Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald.

Peter taught the game to a group of educators at a September staff retreat at Camp Thunderbird.

Michelle Newman-Bennett, an educator at Spectrum Secondary, said she fell in love with the game and has been teaching it to students.

Newman-Bennett, who helped organize the tournament, said the process was more exhausting than a do-it-yourself wedding due to the sheer amount of moving parts, she said.

But Newman-Bennett said it was worth it to introduce Lahal to the next generation.

“My nation’s ancestors have been here for 11,000 years, so the game has been played for quite some time,” said Newman-Bennett, who is from the Kwaguʼł First Nation on northern Vancouver Island.

For Newman-Bennett, the best part of Lahal is seeing Indigenous students gain confidence and excitement as they taught their fellow students the game and played during lunchtimes.

“It’s about bringing these two worldviews together … having relationships being built, developed and fostered among Indigenous and non-Indigenous students,” she said.

Marlena Seaweed-August, a Grade 9 student who was captaining the team from Reynolds Secondary, said it was an interesting experience to play against other teenagers.

Lahal tournaments are usually an all-family affair with kids, elders and everyone in between, she said.

“Most of them knew what they were doing,” Seaweed-August said. “Others are very new to it.” But that’s okay, she said. “You want to play for fun. You’ll play to win, but mostly to have fun.”

Seaweed-August, who is from Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation on her mother’s side and ‘Namgis First Nation on her father’s side, has been playing the game since she was little in tournaments across Vancouver Island.

To increase her chances of winning, she brought along sunglasses.

“I’ve been told by my sisters that when I have the bones, my eyes will look at the one that’s unmarked,” she said.

Songhees Elder Frank George, who gave a welcome at the event, said he was aglow with pride. “We’re proud of each and every one of these young people. They’re learning this culture that was handed down to us by our ancestors.”

After a cacophonous few hours, students from Esquimalt High School emerged victorious, defeating a team from W̱SÁNEĆ in the final game, triumphing over 25 other teams to win the prize of tournament hoodies and a handmade Lahal set by Vic High student Chris August.


Lahal is played between two teams using two sets of “bones” (one striped pair, and one unstriped pair), scoring sticks, and a “king” stick — an extra stick for the team that begins the game. One team conceals sets of bones within their hands, while the other team tries to win scoring sticks by guessing the location of the unstriped bones.

A game of Lahal can last many rounds, as the playing continues until a decisive number of rounds have been won by one side, calculated and kept track of with wooden markers.

While the bones are being mixed, the team that is mixing the bones sings and drums loudly in an attempt to distract and intimidate the opposing guesser.

Songs are an essential part of playing Lahal in the Pacific Northwest.

Over 194 distinct Lahal songs were recorded in a 1972 ethnomusic study. Some songs were found to have “belonged” to families or individuals.

Lahal songs sung by students at Spectrum on Tuesday were gifted the songs by Elders.

Guesses are made with a non-verbal gesture, which has allowed for the game to be played between nations who speak different languages to play against each other.

A 1907 study found that 81 nations from 28 linguistic groups across North America from B.C. to Mexico were able to describe a form of Lahal played in their communities.

The game was formerly played with animal bones or antlers. Lahal sets are now largely made from wood.

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